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In praise of Christmastime

Liz Smith

"The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway. There's never been such a day, in Beverly Hills, L.A. But it's December the 24th, and I'm longing to be up north."

You probably won't be singing this, the opening verse to the famed Irving Berlin song, "White Christmas." People usually start out merely singing, "I'm dreaming of a White Christmas just like the ones we used to know."

This song, now over 60 years old, has been described by Jody Rosen: "A cantor's son from Russia took the Christ out of Christmas by composing one of America's favorite songs. It is the darkest, bluest tune ever to masquerade as a Christmas carol. And it's not a carol -- that implication is religious. It's just a popular song!"

As the old joke goes, "What if there had been room at the inn?" Would it have changed history?

Every year in the memorable past, my late friend Nora Ephron, who appreciated her Hebrew lineage, would make every holiday party begin with the singing of the ageless "White Christmas." And she would insist on singing the verse herself, having grown up with her screenwriter parents, living in L.A.

Some people find this song discomforting in that its merry build-up moves to a minor chord on the second half of the held note. Why should the word "bright" suddenly turn dark?

Irving Berlin dominated American musical history from the '20s through the '50s. He wrote "White Christmas" for a Broadway revue and days had not been "merry and bright" for him and his socialite wife. They were much criticized for having a "mixed" marriage in those days. And they had lost their infant son on Christmas day in 1928.

The man who really "invented" Christmas wasn't a gospel writer. He was Charles Dickens. With his descriptions of food, casseroles and his good-bad characters from Ebenezer Scrooge to Bob Cratchit, all written with vigorous cheer, helped the writer stay out of debt. Dickens once described "leftover turkey twice the size of Tiny Tim." This dealt the goose-raising industry of England such a blow that it tanked.

Just for your curiosity, back in 1648 on December 25, there were eight British sovereigns still alive at the same time. The book, "Schott's Original Miscellany" lists them: Richard Cromwell, Charles II, James II, William III, Mary II, George I, and George II." What a treat for paparazzi and hidden cameras, if they had been around back then.

On the north Atlantic seaboard, disgruntled revolutionary colonists were ostensibly yearning for religious freedom, while taking away everything from those they called "the savage Indians." These rebel free thinkers didn't really believe in celebrating. They were too rigid and religious for Christmas.

So people are still saying "Happy Holidays," which I detest. Either say, "Merry Christmas," or drop it. I say, "Happy Hanukkah" or "Happy Kwanzaa" to people and it doesn't diminish Christmas a bit. On the contrary.

Regardless of your religion, or lack of it, I think you can celebrate Christmas by its regular name without causing offense. I repeat John Betjemin's poem:

"AND IS it true? And is it true?

This most tremendous tale of all,

Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,

A Baby in an ox's stall?

The Maker of the stars and sea

Become a Child on earth for me?"

So whether we are Jewish, Christian or something else, we are celebrating an early European tradition of fighting against the winter darkness, using lights, candles, food, fireplaces, gift-giving and the festival of the solstice. We also celebrate something else -- the rise of the idea of St. Nicholas, who transformed into Santa Claus. So, this is the week to celebrate all the goodwill versions, of the yuletide, as well as biblical history's Middle East miracle -- the birth of Jesus Christ. I believe this myth, legend or reality changed the Western world for the better, whether one believes in its divinity or not.

P.S. Quick: What were the names of Santa's reindeer?

And there is a current TV ad. A man is granted a wish and he asks for "a million bucks," whereupon a million buck reindeer appear on his street. What is the fallacy about this? Well, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen (and maybe the 20th century's Rudolph) are male. But the interesting thing about this is that reindeer are all female at this time of year. And only females have antlers at Christmastime.

Other unimportant facts: Christmas trees were traditionally brought into the house only on Christmas Eve. Considering the travail of putting up a tree, I'd say ignore this and pay, if necessary, for the tree to be set up well in advance.

Let's get it down that the three wise men who followed the star were Melchior, who brought gold, the king of Tarsus, Gaspar, who brought frankincense, and Balthazar, the king of Ethiopia, who brought myrrh. But with the first gift, I'm surprised there was no room at the inn.

Anyway, Merry Christmas from Liz to all!

(E-mail Liz Smith at


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